Learning Stuff Online: Are MOOCs the Future?

Girl on Laptop

The Internet has already changed the way all of us learn, and I’m not just talking about specific apps (shameless plug for Duolingo—created by a Guatemalan, FYI) and niche websites. I’m talking about basic things like Google and YouTube.

You have no idea how many times I’ve seen kick-ass developers Google something to figure out why a bug is happening or how something should be fixed.

Because if one person has come across a problem, odds are so have many other people. And by allowing the entire world to connect to everyone else, we can share and learn from everyone else’s experience.

Think about it: you may never have an unanswered question ever again.

Which is why these things called Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become so popular as of late—they allow anyone to learn pretty much anything from anywhere in the world. I’ve written about these sites before, but the big ones are Udemy, Coursera, Lynda, and Udacity, among others. They have always been looked at with a little bit of disdain from traditional educational folks, both because they’re new and different, and because they don’t mean anything.

Not officially, anyway.

You can pay for a course and learn a bunch of stuff, but you don’t get a diploma or certificate that vouches for you. Let’s put the argument that you don’t really need a certificate of any kind to make your way through the world aside for just a minute. That’s something you can only get at an honest-to-goodness university. And that’s been one of the big debates surrounding MOOCs: are they actually a cost-effective option for people to learn new skills that translate into the real world or are they simply a nice way to become a little more interesting?

Georgia Tech Makes a Move

Starting in January 2014, Georgia Tech is going to put their own two cents into the mix…and it’s going to make this debate even more intense. You see, Georgia Tech is one of the top engineering schools in the country (maybe the world?). And they’re going to dip their toes into the world of MOOCs by offering a Masters Degree in Computer Science via a partnership with Udacity.

That means anyone in the world can get a Masters Degree that’s got the Georgia Tech stamp of approval, all for just $6,000. Attending in person runs you $45,000.

Will it Work?

Yes, it will. Giving people around the world the opportunity to get this degree without having to move to Georgia is a big deal. I don’t know if the University will make money on this: the university will take 60% of the cut while Udemy (and their “course assistants) will take the other 40%.

But that really doesn’t matter. What matters is that it opens the door to a brave new world. With tuition rates out of control for years and more and more people deciding that college isn’t affordable (or necessary either way), this could be start of a rebirth for higher education.

You combine the best parts of MOOCs (affordability, convenience, and a focus on learning practical skills) with the cachet of a university-backed degree, and you’ve got something pretty special.

Then again, if it isn’t done right, then all it becomes is a university trying to get greedy and make more money by filming their courses and handing off to a vendor to put online. That puts their reputation on the line and it means employers might eye your resume a little differently when it comes time to interview (“Oh you did the MOOC version of the Georgia Tech degree….I see.”).

My Experience

Personally, I’ve taken several different kinds of courses online. I took a writing class (that I paid for) with Gotham Writer’s Workshop back in the early 2000s. It was great because I had no idea a writing class even existed at the time, so being able to connect with people from all over the country was great (I was living in Guatemala at the time, which made it even more incredible). I think I paid $400 for it.

I’ve also tried taking a couple of the courses on iTunes U: one was a computer science class and another was an iOS development class. These came with a syllabus, handouts, homework, videos of the actual classes, and even the software I’d need to complete all the exercises. It was free, which is why I took them. But it’s also why I had no urgency to complete them.

No one was checking my work and no one cared if I just stopped. Which is what I did three weeks into it. Watching each video of the class reminded me that the students in the auditorium had probably already graduated and were out in the world…it all felt stale and outdated.

Then I got hooked on Udemy, which is a place where almost anyone can put together a video-based course and sell it to the public. There was some deal going on for five courses at $99 (the actual retail price for all five was over $500) so I jumped on that as well. Most of them were programming courses, and I went through one of them all the way to the end.

It was pretty good, but again I felt alone and had no urgency to stick to a schedule. There was no homework and there really wasn’t a big commitment from me (“I can finish these courses whenever, no rush!”).

But that cost me $99—not $6,000. I’m guessing if I laid down that much cash I would totally take it seriously and see it all the way through…I would hope so anyway.

Either way, I’m curious to see how Georgia Tech implements it and whether any other prestigious schools decide to follow suit.

Image by hobvias sudeneighm